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January 6, 2021

Bonus Interview with Jonathan Smart on Sooner Safer Happier

By IT Revolution

Gene: You use the Cynefin model to frame a picture of everything from known knowns to unknown unknowns. What about this model is essential to the necessary mindset shift and business success in the digital age?

Jon: I find Cynefin, a sense-making model, to be a great frame of reference for optimizing the approach to the work, to the domain of the work. Cynefin articulates five domains. 

Within the Clear domain, there are known-knowns. There is best practice.The relationship between cause and effect is clear. This has been done many times before and specialist expertise is not required, a child should be aware of the cause and effect (e.g. paying for goods in a store, commuting to school or work, riding a bike, which side of the road to drive on).

In the Complicated domain, there are known-unknowns. There is good practice, not best practice. The relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or expertise. There is a range of right answers. This has been done many times before and there is specialist expertise, hence we know what we don’t know (e.g., installing a server in a datacenter, processing payments, building a million Toyota Priuses, or the path to production for software). A good question to ask is “how many times have we done this exact thing, in this exact context, with these exact people”. If it’s many times, then it’s likely in the Complicated domain. Experimentation is in the pursuit of perfection. Variability is minimized. This is the sweet spot for lean.

The Complex domain has unknown-unknowns. There is emergence. There is no such thing as best practice. Cause and effect can only be determined in retrospect. Acting in the space changes the space. There is a need to experiment, get fast feedback, and respond to it. This is the domain of unique product development. It’s not been done before. We don’t quite know how we’re going to do it or how people will respond (e.g. changing ways of working, software development, an internal audit report or designing a brand new model of car with CAD modeling, clay prototype, focus groups, eventually leading to full size prototypes with testing in the Sahara and Alaska). Perfect is the enemy of good, there is a need to optimize for fast learning. Variability is maximized. This is the sweet spot for agile.

When in the Chaos domain, cause and effect are unknown. Quick action is the only way to respond. If you smell smoke and see flames, you don’t design experiments; you get out of the way of danger. Act, sense, and then respond.

If you cannot tell which domain you are in, you are in the domain called Confusion, so you seek more information or try to break the situation down into constituent parts.

The first two domains, Clear and Complicated, are ‘ordered’. Cause and effect can be determined. The second two domains, Complex and Chaos, are ‘unordered’. Cause and effect cannot be determined in advance and acting in the space changes the space, such that cause and effect does not remain the same.  

Work moves around the domains. A new product is created (Complex). It becomes a mass-market product (Complicated). There is a dip into Chaos when something unforeseen happens, such as an IT outage or an issue leading to a product recall. In some cases that leads to a new good practice in the Complicated domain.

As we have advanced from the Age of Oil and Mass Production to the Age of Digital, we have gone from being more focused in the Complicated domain (repetitive, predictable, and knowable mass production) to more people being more focused in the Complex domain (emergent and unknowable, needing outcome hypotheses and fast learning) with programmable machines doing much of the repetitive work. We are producing new iterations of products and responding to feedback at a faster rate in order to delight customers.

Regarding mindset shift and business success, a common antipattern is to continue to treat emergent change, as if it is knowable. To continue to apply a deterministic mindset suited to knowable work (Complicated) to unknowable work (Complex). For example, continuing to focus on success being determined as hitting milestones in a project plan for a solution which was determined at the point of knowing the least and with learning and value coming in late, at the end. This fails to leverage and cater to emergence. Instead focus on the desired outcome and encourage early and often experimentation to maximize value and shorten time to value. Another antipattern is to try to ‘do Agile’ to everything, including applying it to repetitive knowable work. That is treating Complicated as Complex. 

Instead, ask yourself ‘what are we optimizing for?’ and is the approach to the work being optimized to the domain that the work is currently in? Focus on the desired outcomes, not agile for agile’s sake or lean for lean’s sake, and optimize the approach to the work, to the current domain of the work, starting small and learning fast.   

Gene: So, how many principles are there in Sooner Safer Happier? Why such a long list?

Jon: In the book, there are 29 principles articulated, aligned to 8 chapters. This is 3 to 4 principles per chapter. Principles are intended to guide millions of decisions every day. They apply across contexts. For example “Invite over Inflict” and “One Size Does Not Fit All”. 

Specific practices emerge by applying the principles to your unique context and by using coaching and experimentation, leveraging many bodies of knowledge. To slightly misquote Dan Terhorst-North: “Practices = Principles + Context.” The success pattern is to identify the top ten or so principles that you feel are most important to encourage across your organization, communicate them relentlessly, and recognize behaviors in line with them. They are positive behavioral guardrails.

The intentionally long list provided in the book is intended to help you get started. We wanted to provide a long list, in order that you can choose the most relevant ones in your context. The principles themselves are self-referential. You are invited to use them, and there is no one size fits all. Your context and impediments will determine which are more important to encourage.

Gene: If you choose only one principle from the book to live by, which would it be.

Jon: It would be “Focus on Outcomes: Better Value Sooner Safer Happier”. 

Because optimizing for quality, value, flow, safety and happiness (including society and the climate) will lead to and require the other principles. Because they balance each other, such that to improve on all of them in a virtuous circle requires a sustainable, renewable, systemic, holistic approach. 

- About The Authors
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IT Revolution

Trusted by technology leaders worldwide. Since publishing The Phoenix Project in 2013, and launching DevOps Enterprise Summit in 2014, we’ve been assembling guidance from industry experts and top practitioners.

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